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As anti-mask billboards go up in Spokane, area officials urge people to follow recommendations

A billboard paid for by the John Birch Society  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REview)

A conservative group has put up a pair of anti-mask billboards in the Spokane area that advocate against following public health recommendations, leading health officials and experts to argue media literacy is key to combating misinformation.

The John Birch Society, a far-right group that pushes for limited government, paid for two billboards reading “Freedom is the Cure” and showing a disgusted-looking woman throwing away a mask. The billboards can be found at North Market Street and East Garnet Avenue near the Bemiss neighborhood and on East Sprague Avenue near the Spokane Valley Public Library.

Director of the Edward R. Murrow Center for Media & Health Promotion Research Erica Austin, who researches media literacy and health promotion, said public health officials are working to reach people who consider wearing a mask an issue of freedom and to help reframe the debate about their usage.

“They’re doing everything they can to try to persuade people to do things that will preserve their freedom, to keep them healthy so they can do things they would like to do,” Austin said. “There are a lot of things right now that we don’t feel safe to do because we don’t feel safe from the virus.”

But the organizers behind the billboard view current public health recommendations as government overreach.

Caleb Collier, a former Spokane Valley City Councilman and longtime associate of state Rep. Matt Shea, is the executive field coordinator for the John Birch Society in 11 Western states. Collier said he got the idea for the billboards after reading the John Birch Society magazine the New American.

One of their recent issues, titled “Freedom is the Cure,” inspired Collier to host rallies against COVID-19 public health recommendations that he considers “unconstitutional government edicts.” In Spokane, the rallies drew about 2,000 people, Collier said.

“I can do something with this tagline ‘Freedom is the Cure,’ so I worked with some fellow patriots,” Collier said. “It doesn’t make sense statistics-wise to close down the entire economy for a virus that, when you look at the statistics, it’s killing about the same number of people as the flu.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, there are serious differences between the flu and COVID-19 in terms of how long the illnesses last, their long-term effects and how deadly they are. While the flu kills between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans annually, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention, COVID-19 has killed 150,000 people in the United States in five months, despite the implementation of drastic social distancing measures.

After the rallies, Collier raised funds through “a grassroots effort” to put up the billboards and gave the money to the John Birch Society. He declined to say who else gave to the effort.

For Collier, the billboards express opposition to the amount of power Gov. Jay Inslee and public health officials are exerting over the community, he said.

Collier also said he does not believe studies that say wearing masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19, instead citing alternative studies that are “on my side on this subject.”

The CDC, however, has said it appears the virus is transmitted by respiratory droplets, and that “cloth face coverings are recommended as a simple barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people when the person wearing the cloth face covering coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice.”

Spokane Regional Health District Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz called masking “a prosocial activity that benefits everyone.”

“People have unfortunately kind of taken this as a constitutional liberty that is being challenged,” Lutz said. “Nobody … gives you a constitutional right to harm somebody. That’s essentially what not wearing a mask is, especially with as much spread in our area.”

Austin said that billboards like the John Birch Society’s are just a small piece of the large amount of misinformation that has been circulating about COVID-19 and public health as a whole.

“There’s so much information out there right now, and some of it of course is misinformation,” Austin said. “For people in the public health community, it’s kind of like whack-a-mole to get good information out there.”

Individuals should take the time to really dig in to the source of the information they are taking in, Austin said. The first thing a consumer should ask is “Where is this information coming from?” and “What is the source?,” Austin said.

“In this case, one thing that was very helpful is the source was prominently displayed on the billboard,” Austin said.

Next, Austin said, people should evaluate how trustworthy that source is.

“If they’re citing information on their website, can you track back to its original source?” Austin said. “If this is a source you don’t know a lot about, it helps to verify the information with other sources. It’s really important to cross-check information.”

In this case, Austin said, the billboards were sponsored by a political organization, the John Birch Society, and “they have a viewpoint.”

“Some people have a viewpoint and they have a right to those views, but they don’t necessarily have a right to their own facts,” Austin said. “To some extent, people want to believe what they want to believe and some of the messages we have to get across in public health are difficult messages and people don’t want to accept them.”

Collier said he would also encourage the public “to start questioning the status quo to investigate using alternative media, to question what is being said through largely the mainstream media.”

One thing that Collier said was concerning to him was the “scrubbing” of doctors disagreeing with public health recommendations from social media platforms.

“These are free speech platforms,” Collier said.

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all privately owned companies, removed videos by a group called America’s Frontline Doctors who claimed that masks and shutdowns are not necessary to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, despite many scientific studies producing evidence to the contrary.

The social media companies said the videos were “in violation of our COVID-19 misinformation policy,” according to the Washington Post.

The danger with a message like “Freedom is the cure,” Austin said, is that it is vague and that the source will be forgotten if it’s repeated enough.

“Messages like that are so catchy (that) if they’re repeated very often, you forget what the source was, so it can sow some doubt,” Austin said.

Misinformation that comes from a specific viewpoint can be combated when someone from the community that harbors that falsehood corrects it, Austin said.

For example, Austin noted, many conservatives were opposed to wearing a mask until President Donald Trump appeared publicly wearing a mask and called mask wearing “patriotic.”

But that message might not reach everyone, Austin cautioned.

“You also have to realize that there are going to be some people that as soon as they see Trump anything it’s going to turn them off,” Austin said. “You have to target your message.”

Ultimately, Austin said it’s important to consider why an organization might be spreading any given message.

“You always want to consider what’s their motivation for putting up that message,” Austin said.

“Is it because they’re really trying to do something for my benefit? Or because they want something out of it?”

Despite some lingering distrust of masks, Lutz said he’s encouraged by a recent survey in Spokane County that found more than 90% of people were wearing face coverings in retail venues.

“Unfortunately, a lot of visibility is given to a very vocal, outspoken minority that does not believe in science, does not believe data. It does sort of chip away at the credibility of the work we’re doing,” Lutz said. “But, you know, again, the majority of people support the recommendations.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Caleb Collier said after doing grassroots fundraising he made the donation of those funds to the John Birch Society to pay for the signs. Erica Austin’s title has also been corrected. She is the director of the Edward R. Murrow Center for Media & Health Promotion Research.